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What to Do When a Friend Relapses

For many people, the winter months can be an exceptionally rough time to stay sober, a time when we can become acutely aware of our loneliness.

Emotional triggers like this create turbulent ground and risk of relapse for people in any stage of recovery.

As hard as it can be when someone you deeply care about relapses, it is vital to proceed with caution before you say or do something. For one thing, someone who has just relapsed is already going to be dealing with a lot of guilt and shame. Adding fuel to the fire will only increase the burn.

The word relapse connotes failure, but associating relapse with failure is neither helpful nor true.

The first thing to know is that addiction relapse happens. Relapse does not mean failure. As with any chronic illness, addiction is a disease of remission and relapse. This does not mean that relapse is guaranteed, or that anyone who gets clean needs to live waiting for their shadow to devour them; instead, it means that when relapse does occur, it doesn’t have to be seen as negating progress.

What does it actually mean to relapse?

To each person, relapse means something different. For instance, to a person in recovery from alcoholism, one sip might be perceived as total failure to them—and lead them to a full-blown relapse. Another person might more easily be able to move past—and forgive themselves for—a glass of wine during the holidays. The point is, perception is key when it comes to thinking about relapse.

Three of the most common feelings for a friend or loved one of someone who has just relapsed are anger, fear, and guilt. These emotions can cause hurtful words to be blurted out and sound like retaliation.

Some things you should refrain from saying include:

  • “I can’t believe you!”
  • “You were doing so well. What happened?”
  • “Are you seriously that weak?”
  • “You’re never going to get clean, are you?”
  • “You’re not trying hard enough.”
  • “When are you going to grow up and stop being so selfish?”

The problem with these statements is they tend to treat addiction as a moral failure. These words are daggers to a person who has just slipped up and is at the mercy of a chronic disease.

Things you can do:

  • Stay firm and hold your loved one accountable
  • Offer encouragement
  • Be supportive
  • Suggest an activity you can do together routinely, such as hiking or signing up for an art class
  • Stay optimistic

Something essential to consider before approaching a friend has to do with your own relationship to substance. Are you also in recovery? If so, you must protect your own sobriety. Rushing off to play hero and save someone while putting your own sobriety on the line could lead to your own relapse.

The best action is always proactive. Be aware of certain patterns and habits that arise when a friend relapses. Some common signs include:

  • Sudden moments of glorifying a drug or alcohol
  • Reminiscing on the “good old days”
  • Progressive isolation
  • Cessation of activities that were part of the recovery plan, such as skipping meetings and checking in
  • Behavior changes that don’t add up
  • Lying
  • Defensiveness
  • Using alternative substances
  • Expressions of feeling hopeless and/or having a “why not?” attitude

If you start to notice your friend displaying these signs or other strange behavior, it’s important to check in with them. But you must approach as emotionally disengaged as possible. If you come at them with anger or try to make them feel guilty, it may only make things worse and cause them to spiral further down.

This does not mean to sweep a relapse under the rug. A relapse should be taken very seriously, but from a perspective of progression.

Instead of coming from negativity, remind your friend of their past victories. Shine a light on their incredible dedication and progress. Let them know that you believe in them, and that relapse is part of the disease.

Rather than focusing on the slip up, help them plan for a future. Look forward, rather than backward.

A main difference with relapse comes with substances like opiates. Relapse can be incredibly dangerous to someone who has been using fentanyl, heroin, or prescription pain relievers. One can easily overdose on these drugs during recovery because the body has lost its tolerance and does not know what to do with so much.

In this case, medical attention becomes priority number one.

A recent article published in the Huffington Post notes that a relapse in addiction is statistically similar to relapse among other diseases. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 40 to 60 percent of people suffering from substance abuse relapse compared to 50 to 70 percent of both hypertension and asthma patients.

Considering how addiction relapse is similar to other relapses, perhaps we need to change the way we think about treatment. A person with diabetes who experiences a setback would go to the doctor to get care. Why don’t we use the same patient, caring approach with a person who struggles with addiction?

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